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Hussein Ibish

Who will be the Brothers’ keepers?

The passage in late March of constitutional amendments allowing for early parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt has revived concerns about the impact of likely major electoral successes for Islamist parties in emerging Arab democracies.
 
Some Egyptian reformers had warned that at least a year was needed to allow new political parties to begin to function. As things stand, there are only two well-organized parties in Egypt: the discredited former ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The NDP probably still has some constituency and could remain a presence in the new parliament. But the deeper concern is that the only opposition group well positioned at this early stage to launch an effective nationwide campaign is the Brotherhood.
 
The demonstrations that ousted President Hosni Mubarak were not driven by Islamist rhetoric or ideology; they were secular, ecumenical and patriotic. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has the national infrastructure to campaign village by village, and it has a history of providing basic social services like health and education that the government has often failed to secure.
 
Because they have never held power anywhere outside of Gaza, Arab Sunni Islamists can claim the mantle of good governance, invoking the silly but commonplace idea that the devout are, by definition, honest. And while Islamist ideology didn’t carry much sway with the urban demonstrators in Tahrir Square, it might have much broader appeal in villages generally not part of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
 
So, there is every indication that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to perform extremely well in early Egyptian elections. But is that a reason for alarm? After all, the religious right will have to be a part of any genuinely democratic order, as long as it is unarmed and plays by constitutional rules. Like all other parties, it has every right to stand for elections and seek a popular mandate for governance.
 
Some American observers such as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy advocate “discriminate democracy,” which he has defined as a “democracy for all but the Islamists.” Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has bluntly written that the prospect of Islamists coming to power might threaten Israel and therefore Egyptian democracy is to be feared and rejected.
 
These are ridiculous arguments. There is a robust religious right in Israel, heavily represented in the current Israeli cabinet, that has propagated perfectly outrageous policies regarding the Palestinians, peace and Israeli minority groups. Is that a reason to reject democracy in Israel? There is also a robust and pernicious religious right in the United States, represented by demagogues such as Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, but their presence is hardly an argument for scrapping the Constitution.
 
The concern about Islamists and democracy is wrongly framed as the threat of “one man, one vote, one time,” as if Islamists generally intended to hold only one election, seize power and then shut down the process altogether. I think this is a serious misreading of the actual strategy of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It appears that most Arabs, including Islamists, have understood that governmental legitimacy requires elections, and that can’t be based on only one election. On the contrary, the Brotherhood seems to have a quiet confidence that it can consistently do well in elections over time, and that this is sufficient to pursue its agenda, at least at this stage.
 
The real challenge is very different: it is that the other side of the democratic coin – the need to restrain the power of democratically-elected majorities – is far less well understood or accepted. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is currently embroiled in a ridiculous debate about whether a woman or a Christian might one day serve as Egyptian president. Other than ruling parties and families, Arabs generally seem to have embraced the idea that elections are essential for legitimacy. But the need to protect the rights of individuals, minorities, women and others from potentially tyrannous majorities has not penetrated sufficiently.
 
Should democracies featuring regular, free and fair elections take hold in key Arab states such as Egypt, the challenge will probably not be a shutting down of the electoral process. It will be maintaining and enforcing restraint on the powers of potentially tyrannous majorities over individuals, women and minorities. Democracy promotion work in the Arab world, both internal and external, should move quickly away from an already established consensus in favor of elections, and begin to focus on the equally vital need to put clear limitations on the powers of democratically-elected majorities.
 
Under such circumstances, with strong constitutional limitations on the power of democratically-elected governments in place, backed up by neutral militaries committed to defending the Constitution rather than the regime, it should be possible to reconcile robust Islamist parties with real, functional democracy in the Arab world.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at www.Ibishblog.com.

  • Khan

    Khan Not, you're a fountain of misinformation and bogus facts do you know Mohamed Fawaz he belongs to the same school probably a professor. Most European countries are have secular political systems the UK's official Anglicanism is traditional not political and there are no constitutional barriers to a non-Anglican or even a non-Christian PM. Unlike Islamist groups anyone can join the Christian Democrats. Not one 99% anywhere you claimed, Sweden 87%, Norway 85.7%, Finland 82.5%, Denmark 95% Lutheran; Spain 94%, Portugal 84.5%, Austria 73.6%, Italy 90% Catholic. Turkey's problems with EU membership are two folds, the Turk's human rights record and more importantly it's that new EU members are elected unanimously, Greece and Cyprus won't accept before the Cypriot issue's resolved and even then. Nasralla and other Islamic fundamentalists claim the ME a Muslim land even thought Islam came last what happened to the pre-Muslim communities rights to this land was it put to the sword.

    April 1, 2011

  • Georges Butros Estaphan

    Khan-not come to England where the "official religion" is Anglican and it is illegal for the Prime Minister to be Roman Catholic. Tony Blair "announced" a change publicly only AFTER leaving office. Then I'll take you to Europe - ever wondered by 1900 99 per cent of the Nordic states were Lutheran, 99 per cent of Iberia, Italy and Austria were Roman Catholic? What happened to the pre-Christian communities? Remember them? The official party position of the German Christian Democrats is a Christian Germany - that is why they won't allow Turkey to join, the one Not Sick Man in Europe. Turkey, meanwhile, has an "Islamisti" party which has introduced far more individual rights in law than any "secularist" government ever somehow managed in Turkey since 1923.

    March 31, 2011

  • Ibn Larry

    Brings me back to Madison in the Federalist Papers: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions."

    March 29, 2011

  • Khan

    Turkey, Indonesia.., European Christian Democratic parties do not advocate changing the political system into a strictly Christian one. The Muslim Brotherhood and most similar Sunni and Shii3a Islamist parties want to implement an Islamic government and Shari3a law, that's what Hamas is doing in Gaza. As our own Islamic fundamentalist Nasralla said an Islamic government is the is the only way to bring stability to a society and is the only way to settle social differences, even in a society that is composed of numerous minorities. There is a massive difference between a socially conservative party and a rabidly intolerant one.

    March 29, 2011

  • S ak-Riachy

    How about an analysis of the actual record of where contested elections take place in Muslim-majority states such as Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Egypt and Yemen have in common with most of these majority rural population. All other 20 Arab League states, in contrast, are majority urbanized - in the 70 to 80 per cent rate, which may have an impact. Parties that are ruling in Turkey and Indonesia today - and in Iraq - are broadly conservative, traditional "family values" based parties, similar to Muslim Brotherhood. In Europe 50 years ago, "Christian Democratic" parties were dominant with similar basic world view - but no one ever called them "Christianists"

    March 29, 2011